Thursday, September 23, 2010

Big cucumbers, small carrots

I feel like I'm looking at Germany through Japanese eyes. All the things that strike me as odd or awesome about Bonn are simply a collection of the things that clash with Kyoto.

Japan, not Canada, is the measuring stick against which I judge Germany.

When I moved to Japan, I remember being shocked by the size of the vegetables. The cucumbers were tiny and the carrots were huge. But I got used to it eventually. Tiny cucumbers and huge carrots became the new normal.

Two years later, I moved to Germany and found myself dealing with vegetable shock all over again. Only this time the cucumbers were huge and the carrots were tiny. Walking into a grocery store in Bonn was like walking into an alternate universe. The cucumbers weren't just big, they were obscenely big. Each one was longer than my forearm and thicker than a baguette.

I felt dizzy, as though the ground had suddenly shifted beneath my feet. Were cucumbers always this big? Had I become so accustomed to living in Japan that I had forgotten what cucumbers in the rest of the world were like? What was really real? And why do my existential crises always take place in grocery stores?

I've had a few other mildly discombobulating moments in Bonn. Like when my landlady Christine invited me into her apartment and insisted I keep my shoes on. Keep my shoes on? Inside the apartment? It felt wrong and dirty. Taking my shoes off in Japan is no longer just a custom I follow to be polite; it has become an ingrained habit. I actually flinch when I watch movies and see characters walking around indoors with their shoes on.

There are other things about Germany that I probably wouldn't have noticed if I hadn't come here directly from Japan. Like the bread, for example. I always thought the bread in Japan was terrible, I just didn't realize how awful it was until I arrived in Bonn. Japanese bread tastes like ground chicken feathers sealed in waxed paper compared to German bread.

The bread here is melt-in-your mouth good. It is crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The butter tastes the way butter is supposed to taste -- rich, creamy, and smooth. And when you spread that butter on a freshly baked bun, the deliciousness of it all is enough to make your head explode.

Don't even get me started on the cheese. Cheese is non-existent in Japan and omnipresent in Germany. It's not all good, though. I bought some firm, yellowish cheese that looked tasty until I got home and opened it up. Its vile stench (a fragrant bouquet of hot vomit mixed with dirty socks and dead rats) made it impossible to eat without gagging.

And while we're on the topic of food, I might as well bring up one of the biggest cultural differences of all -- cafeteria food. The Kyoto University cafeteria and the UN cafeteria are like night and day. As far as I can tell, I am one of the only people who actually like the UN cafeteria. Most people prefer to either pack a lunch and eat at their desks or leave the compound in search of more palatable options. The general consensus is that the cafeteria food is too spicy, too heavy, and has too much sauce.

Which is exactly what I like about it. I've been eating lunch at the Kyoto University cafeteria for the past two years, and the food is never spicy, saucy, or heavy. Japanese food is great but a girl can only take so much cold fish, white rice, and miso soup.

My enthusiasm for the spicy, saucy cafeteria food is causing a few raised eyebrows. I ran into one coworker on my way back from the cafeteria the other day and she asked me how my lunch was.

"Delicious!" I told her.

She eyed me suspiciously.

"How long have you been here?" she asked.

"Two weeks," I said.

"Just wait," she laughed. "Your opinion will change."

I hope she's right. All of this gorging on heavy food is making it tough to fit into my jeans. But I don't feel bad about gaining a few pounds in a place where the vast majority of the population is tall and strapping. I could gain 10 pounds here and still be small by comparison. It's a nice change from Japan, where so many women are slaves to an unhealthy standard of skinniness. I feel like a sasquatch in Japan. Especially when shopping for clothes. Shoes stop at size 8 and pants stop at your ankles -- if you're lucky enough to get them up past your butt and hips in the first place. One of the first things I did in Bonn was buy a pair of pants. Hooray for Western sizes!

Of course, not all of the differences are positive. Public transit is so good in Japan that public transit anywhere else is insufferably bad by comparison. No one does public transit like Japan. It's fast, efficient, convenient, and reliable. There isn't a single corner of the country you can't get to by public transit, and you can guarantee the white-gloved driver will get you there on time. If a train is scheduled to arrive at 12:32 p.m. it will arrive at exactly 12:32 p.m. Bus drivers treat you with respect and courtesy. They'll go out of their way to help you and throw in a bow or two (or 10) while doing it. After all, you are the customer and the customer is king in Japan.

Not so much in Germany. I have taken the bus three times in Bonn. The first time the bus driver screamed at me after I didn't pay my fare properly. The second time the bus was 15 minutes late. The third time the bus was one hour late. There has not, and never will be, a fourth time. Walking is faster and less stressful.

Besides, walking gives me time to reflect on all the things that are odd or awesome about Bonn, and how incredibly lucky I am to be here.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Home sweet temporary home

It's hard to believe I've only been in Bonn for one week. It feels like I've been here for a year. I guess that's what happens when you step off the plane and into a whirling vortex of activity.

I arrived Thursday night and started working at the UN the next morning. The day after that, I looked for a place to live, found a place to live, and went to a dinner party. On Monday, I moved out of the hotel and into an apartment. Along the way, I got yelled at (in German) by a bus driver after attempting to put coins in the fare slot instead of placing them on the little tray (how was I supposed to know?). I guess I jammed up the machine pretty badly because the driver kept swearing and pounding on it with his fist every time someone needed change. He also made a point of turning around and throwing a few hostile stares in my direction during these frequent temper tantrums. I haven't taken the bus since.

On Tuesday, I got lost on my way to my landlady's art opening, missed the show, and discovered that my bankcard wasn't working. On Wednesday, the bank unblocked my card and I finally topped up my dwindling supply of cash. On Thursday, I went to my landlady's apartment to pay the rent and ended up staying for dinner.

I feel like I won the apartment lottery. I'm living in the basement of a beautiful old house built in 1886. The apartment is fully furnished and has free internet and its own private garden (all for 505 Euro a month, including heat, hot water, and electricity). It's quiet, clean, and cozy. The two other tenants -- a young Italian woman and an older Spanish man -- also work at the UN. The location is about as good as it gets. It's a 10-minute walk to the centre of town, a two-minute walk to the Rhine River, and a five-minute walk to pretty much everything else.

But what makes me happiest about the apartment is the people who rented it to me. I was just one person in a long line of people who were viewing the apartment on the weekend. But I had one advantage -- my Canadian passport. It turns out that Christine, the owner of the house, is also Canadian. Originally from Switzerland, she moved to Montreal at the age of 20 and loved it so much she stuck around for 10 years and became a citizen. She instantly warmed to me and I instantly warmed to her. She later confessed that my being Canadian was what made her decide to rent the apartment to me.

She and her German husband Eduard live in an airy, rambling apartment two floors above mine. Christine is an artist and Eduard is a music producer. They are fun and friendly and love cats just as much as I do. I went to their apartment to pay the rent on Thursday night and Christine invited me in and we ended up talking in her kitchen the whole night. Christine and Eduard insisted I stay for dinner and we feasted on tomatoes, bread, cheese, salad and red wine by candlelight. The three of us talked about everything -- music, marriage, cats, children, grandchildren, Eduard's adventures in Los Angeles, and Christine's adventures in Canada's wild spaces and beautiful places.

It has been no different at work. I have been warmly welcomed and made to feel like a part of the team. The work is challenging, interesting, and meaningful. The cafeteria food is delicious. I am exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do. Sometimes I just want to pinch myself. How did I get so lucky?

I don't think I will ever tire of walking around Bonn. I love the way the rows of old houses are seamlessly stitched together and stand right up against the sidewalk. I love their richly decorated facades, arched windows, heavy doors, and high ceilings. The houses remind me of towering wedding cakes -- all sugary swirls, etched edges, and gilded pillars. To me, these elaborate flourishes epitomize the romantic, idealized image of Europe -- a place with magnificent architecture and cobblestone streets.

It's strange, this adjusting to life in a new city. I thought I would feel lost or disoriented. But I don't. I haven't experienced any culture shock, other than getting yelled at by the bus driver and being blown away by the size of the cheese section at the grocery store.

Sharing a train with hundreds of drunken, rowdy football fans was also pretty shocking (and by "football" I really mean "soccer"). They were yelling, drinking, and smoking. Most of them were so muscular their necks were non-existent. Some of them were missing teeth. All of them seemed to be a hair-trigger away from throwing punches at each other, which probably explains why there were an equal number of police officers riding the train.

It's hard to believe I've only been in Bonn for one week.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Sayonara, Japan! Guten Tag, Germany!

My fans have been begging me to post an update for a while now (and by "fans" I really mean "two friends, plus my mom") so here goes. During the last few months, I:

1. Hiked and camped my way across southern Japan for three weeks during March break. It was so cold that the rain pelting the tent turned into ice overnight, and my water bottle froze solid.

2. Started a master's degree in environmental management at Kyoto University's Graduate School of Global Environmental Studies.

3. Wrote seven essays.

4. Made six presentations.

5. Started drinking coffee on a regular basis.

6. Went camping with three Slavic men. We hiked for four days on a trail that no longer existed. I don't know what was worse: dealing with the terrible trail conditions or the Eastern European egos. At least they argued in Russian, which made tuning them out easy.

7. Developed a crush on Paul the Octopus while following the FIFA World Cup.

8. Turned a good friend into a boyfriend.

9. Signed up for the Tokyo Marathon.

10. Went on a week-long field trip in the forest to cut down trees and dig holes.

11. Got 5 million mosquito bites.

12. Stepped on a snake. Didn't get bitten.

13. Was approached by Sofia Coppola to star in Lost in Translation II but had to turn it down due to a scheduling conflict (just kidding).

14. Camped on top of a mountain with three friends in a tent made for two. Watched from inside the tent as the food we had left outside was devoured by wild monkeys.

15. Developed an addiction to Futurama (10 years late).

16. Ate half my weight in ramen.

17. Was awarded a three-month internship with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany. I fly out tomorrow and start working on Friday!

Sayonara, Japan! Guten Tag Germany!